Kelli O’Hara brings the bright lights of Broadway to the Michigan Theater
Kelli O’Hara is one of those versatile Broadway stars who shines in every show she’s in.
She originated the role of Clara in The Light in the Piazza; played feisty union leader Babe opposite Harry Connick Jr. in The Pajama Game; washed a man right out of her hair as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific; originated the role of Francesca in the stage musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County; and charmed her young charges, royalty, and audiences alike in The King and I, for which O’Hara won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
All the other O’Hara performances I mentioned earned her Tony nominations, too, plus two more besides: Kiss Me, Kate and Nice Work If You Can Get It. So to call O’Hara one of our era’s greatest leading ladies of the stage isn’t hyperbole; it’s just true.
And although O’Hara’s slated to star in the world premiere Broadway musical adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses, scheduled to start previews January 6, she’s also recently been performing concerts in different parts of the country, and she’s headed to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on Sunday, November 12 at 7 pm.
In advance of the show, the native Oklahoman answered a few questions via email about what inspired the concert tour; her newest upcoming show; and her memories of working alongside Ann Arbor native Ashley Park in The King and I.
Q: What inspired you to do a series of concerts?
A: I supposed it is easier to fly myself to different places around this country and beyond than to ask everyone to come to me, and, in doing so, perhaps I encourage someone who might not have otherwise considered it to come see a Broadway show in New York City someday.
Q: Your musical director/accompanist Dan Lipton has worked closely with you for years. Why do you think you work so well together?
A: Dan and I are very different people, and yet we eat the same things, cherish any opportunity to make music, know when to have conversations, and know when to be quiet. When you travel with someone as much as we do together, you learn a shorthand. After almost 20 years, it’s nice to have that comfort. Plus, he can play anything.
Q: One of your most recent projects, The Days of Wine and Roses, has been years in the making. What is it about this particular story that’s sustained your passion for it while it's been in development?
A: The idea of playing such a challenging and unexpected character whom I wanted to explore opposite one of my favorite actors of all time, Brian d’Arcy James, has been sustaining, but add to it the possibility of another Adam Guettel score in the world, and I’d wait a lifetime.
Q: Songs hit us differently in different moments of our lives. What are some songs you find particularly poignant and moving right now?
A: I have a concert with Sutton Foster coming up on November 17 at Carnegie Hall, and there is a song that is piercing my soul right now, but I won’t give the title away. But at this time during my motherhood, I’ll add “Children Will Listen” and “Fable.”
Q: In The King and I, you shared the stage with Ann Arbor native Ashley Park, and she was so excited when you won the Tony. What are your lasting impressions of Ashley, who was then still in the early days of her professional career?
A: Ashley has a zest for life like no one in this world. That hasn’t changed. But during King and I, there was joy or excitement or celebration to be found in almost every moment. Special gifts, practical jokes, surprise parties, dance parties, Mayonnaise parties, tears for joy, tears for sympathy, laughter for days and a beauty and kindness from deep within that I know I can still call on at any time. I’m so proud of her.
Q: The pandemic changed all of us in some way. As a performer, as a parent, what do you think you took away from that strange gap of time?
A: I learned how fragile this life is, this world, this country. I learned even more how much I love what I do, but even more how much I love being home.
Q: How did growing up in Oklahoma shape you? And could you tell me about when and how you made the leap to New York?
A: I don’t know if it was Oklahoma itself or just the two parents who raised me there, but I am proud of the hard work and family-first priorities I learned from them. I also learned fairness and inclusion from them. And they believed in me. I moved to NYC with no job and no place to live, but they let me try. They were big dreamers themselves.
Q: What musicians/vocalists are you listening to most these days? Whom do you admire and why?
A: Recently, I was on a Harry Styles kick, a Sade kick, and a Tracy Chapman kick, which took me back to my college days. But my son, who loves playing jazz piano, got us on a Snarky Puppy and Jacob Collier kick. But give me Ella [Fitzgerald] or Nat [King Cole], and I’ll be home.
Q: Regional theater here hasn't quite recovered since the pandemic, and the story seems to be the same everywhere. Are you feeling optimistic or worried about the future of live theater performances?
A: Remember, I’m a dreamer. I have to be optimistic, or my heart would break for little kids like me around the country. I didn’t have much theatre growing up in Western Oklahoma, but somehow, I knew it was there, somewhere, waiting for me, and if it wasn’t, I probably would have made it. Someone always will.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Kelli O'Hara performs at the Michigan Theater, 603 East Liberty Street, Ann Arbor, on Sunday, November 12 at 7 pm. Visit michigantheater.org for tickets and more information.